Saturday, July 16, 2011

In Defense of Holden Caulfield

If you've have ever been involved in a discussion about The Catcher in the Rye (what book-nerd hasn't?), there is a high chance that you've heard some variant of the phrases  "Holden is the real phony" or "Holden Caulfield needs to harden up". There's even a facebook page dedicated to the fact that "Holden Caulfield is a whiny little bitch". Many people believe that Salinger himself intended Holden to be a dislikable character.

This attitude is often the consensus, accepted with little argument, but I disagree. So I want to stick up for the guy a bit here.

Salinger and his sister
Some of the charges against Holden are true. He judges other people a lot. He complains about people a lot. He feels a lot of angst. But, in my opinion, his good qualities far outweigh his failings.

He is humble and self-deprecating, and he really loves his family brother and sister:
You never saw a little kid so pretty and smart in your whole life. She's really smart. I mean she's had all A's ever since she started school. As a matter of fact, I'm the only dumb one in the family. My brother D.B.'s a writer and all, and my brother Allie, the one that died, that I told you about, was a wizard. I'm the only really dumb one.
He is achingly empathetic. In the first chapter, he writes a note to his teacher so the teacher won't feel bad about failing him. He dislikes school because of the cliques and the random cruelty. He's outraged at injustice and lack of empathy in the world, and people who loved the book when they still had that goodness in them look back at it later and sneer at him for his naivity and despair.

I actually think that Salinger was trying to make us look with more kindness at adolescents. The thing about adolescents is, they go around all the time saying "the world isn't fair", "everyone is horrible to each other", "everyone's pretending to be someone they aren't", and we say to them, "stop being such a whiny brat and harden up".

Salinger is saying "empathy, compassion, and trust are not attributes to be ashamed of"

The Catcher is a metaphor for saving people from the transition to adulthood. Once you run through the rye and off the cliff and grow up you lose things like naive trust, unconditional love, and an expectation of honesty from others. And society congratulates you - "well done, you grew up, you're now a tough, mature, cynical man like us."

The funniest thing is that people love to say, "I hate Catcher in the Rye, Holden is such a whiny little bitch", because they think that saying this sounds mature, and tough. I think that part of Salinger's idea was that being tough is not always better than being sensitive, and being mature is not always better than being childlike.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On Pretentiousness in Literature

See I've done two pretentious things before I've even started: I began the title of a post with 'On', and I called it "Literature". Pretentiousness is difficult to talk about.

What I want to do in this post is defend "pretentious" literature, or at least object to some of the judgments made against it. I'm going to start by splitting books into three rough categories (should win me some friends, right?)

Let's start with Twilight readers. People who read Twilight on the bus presumably don't care what anyone thinks about their knowledge of literature. Who judges Twilight readers? Well, anybody who considers themselves a book-lover or a writing enthusiast probably looks at the kid reading Meyers and thinks "God, that's a shit book". At best. At worst we think, "God, that kid is an idiot". Also in here is Dan Brown and Mills and Boon stuff.

Nobody is reading this to look smart
Now lets consider the guy in skinny jeans taking his Animal Collective-ticket-bookmark out of Infinite Jest as he parks his fixie. There is certainly a very good chance that this kid cares about what people think. He wants our judgment, we think. He wants us to to notice, we think, as he lays his Salinger (Franny and Zooey, not Catcher, obviously), title-up next to his sunglasses.

We're judging him to be a liar. A pretender. We accuse the person who proclaims to love Ulysses, or DeLillo, or Cormac McCarthy's early work: we accuse them of pretending to like it in order to look smart. Difficult books with florid prose, postmodern aspects, and philosophical themes or discussions at the expense of plot and character development are often lauded by critics as the greatest literary works, and reading them will get you a lot of kudos if you are seen as sincere, and a lot of sneers if you are judged to be pretending.

Then there are a whole load of authors somewhere in the middle - usually genre guys with slightly literary aspects (Stephen King, Philip K Dick, Iain M Banks) or guys of unusual popularity or strong political messages (Douglas Adams, JRR Tolkien, George Orwell). Most books with strong plots and lucid, well-paced prose fall in here somewhere. A lot of people who love books in this category accuse people who love literary-philosophical books of pretentiousness while simultaneously themselves having a snobbish attitude toward Tom Clancy or Cecelia Ahern. (When I have this discussion with friends in a bar, this is usually the part at which they all look like they want to stab me in the eye with a blunt pencil)

My point is, nearly everyone looks down on someone, but looking down on someone is not as bad as looking up at someone and judging the sincerity of their ambition. Yes, a lot of people who are reading Infinite Jest or House of Leaves might be doing it just to look smart, but you can't always tell the difference between those people and the people who are reading it because they love to be challenged by a book. It's at least as bad to accuse someone who reads a difficult book of pretension as it is to accuse somebody reading a dumb book of stupidity.

I like to think Kurt would see my point here.
This tension makes it very difficult to have reasoned, calm debates about fiction. In an imaginary book club, if somebody says "I really love John Grisham", I can quite safely turn around and say "Actually, I find his treatment of morality rather shallow compared to Kurt Vonnegut." This will get nods of agreement from most people. But replace Grisham with Vonnegut, and say, "Actually, I find Vonnegut's treatment of morality rather shallow compared to Cormac McCarthy", and there will be blood. Blood and tears.

In part, reviewers are to blame. No reviewer wants to be accused of 'not getting' a difficult book. If in doubt, if the book looks philosophical and has loads of big words, reviewers will often give it a good review even if they didn't enjoy reading it, just in case. So a lot of 'literary' dross gets rave reviews. But there are still people out there, people with good motives, trying to write poetic, philosophical and challenging books.

My argument is simply that we shouldn't be so quick to accuse literary writers and readers of insincerity. We don't do it in other academic fields - people don't accuse number theorists or biochemists of being deliberately obtuse to further their smart-cred. We admire their ambition. Let's cut the literary crowd a bit more slack - assume the best instead of the worst.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Sunset Limited: Cormac McCarthy takes on God

God is in all of Cormac McCarthy's works. His characters speak of God, they pray, they question God's perspective and his motive. Many authors write like this about God - their stories tinged with questions about fate, morality, and death. It's sometimes frustrating then, if such questions are never fully played out and examined with the kind of intensity and rigor that the modern debate about religion and atheism has brought us.

McCarthy, at the age of 74 and in the same year he wrote his most popularly successful novel, The Road,  turns around and gives us a straight-up, no tricks, good old Greek dialog on faith. For and against, Black vs White.

Those are actually the characters' names in the text: Black, a black man, played by Samuel L Jackson in the upcoming HBO production, and White, a white man, played by Tommy Lee Jones. White does not believe in God, and he has just tried to jump under the eponymous train. Black does believe in God: he stopped White from jumping and brings him to his apartment, where the action opens.
This is not Sam's costume for this production.
For the entire play, the two sit in a sparse apartment, at a "cheap formica table", and talk about God. The result is a short little book, a "novel in dramatic form" as it is subtitled, that is refreshingly bullshit-free.

Books about God are usually chock-full of bullshit. Whether it's The Bible or The God Delusion, there is a remarkably high background level of seemingly unavoidable bullshit associated with talking directly about religion.

"Show me a religion that prepares one for death... there's a church i might enter"
On the one hand, you have the pretty obvious fact that there is no such thing as heaven or hell or an interventionist God. On the other hand, books advancing the atheist argument, despite quite clearly having truth on their side, often come across as strident and petty: they rubbish religion's ark while constructing a hasty raft out of wet straw and calling it "The Humanism".   And if you don't buy into the humanism - as White doesn't - what good is your truth if it can't keep you glued to the platform when the train comes rushing in at 80mph.

"White" is no Dawkins or Hitchens: ("I loathe these discussions. The argument of the village atheist whose single passion is to revile endlessly that which he denies the existence of in the first place.") He has lost faith not only in God but in humanity too. "Black" is no professor. There is no tired argument about intelligent design or the anthropic principle. Black is a good old fashioned theist, a St Augustine type: ("If it ain't got the lingerin scent of divinity to it then I ain't interested").

McCarthy very astutely leaves the audience considering the predicament of the two characters at the end of the play. Through my atheist eyes, Black looks foolish. Deluded. But White, with his complete loss of faith in any form of value, is no role model either.